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The Halls – Issue 20

If your dream is to live in a tiny cubicle with only enough room for a single bed and a couple of cubby holes to stash your shit you have two obvious options. Both options will feed you and clean your room and common areas, both provide a social life and access to educational opportunities. The first will cost you more than your entire student allowance each week entrenching you in debt it will take years to pay off. The second is absolutely free. What do you choose?

You’ve probably cottoned on by now to what you are choosing between. One is a sterile, concrete cell block with a relatively high death rate per capita designed to separate a troubled social group from the rest of civilised society. The other is a prison. 

The on-campus accommodation of the University is a wonderful idea poorly executed. In theory, it is a place for young minds to gain some independence from the parental unit, to make new social networks and be ideally located to their education. In practice, it is a sometimes messy, sometimes drunken shitshow wrapped in cinder blocks, bleeding students of their limited resources. The RAs, are a ragtag gang of underpaid, overworked, youths plucked from obscurity who made it through their own first year and have all the scars and survivors guilt necessary to enable them to do a job.

We don’t want to turn this into a soapbox where our rallying cry is “defund the Halls” and they answer back with “Let them eat cake.” The truth is that almost to a person the staff, managers, RAs and SRAs are good people doing a good job in a system that is both failed and broken. You don’t need to stray far from the headlines this year to realise we can all do better.

One of the most galling things about the University of Waikato life  – and a key reason Nexus is overhauling the whole damn place  – is that it costs so much to exist here. 

The redesign required then is as much about a systemic overhaul as it is about the physical infrastructure. In fairness, and despite all the derogatory commentary to the contrary at the start of this piece, there is nothing wrong with small living spaces. If anything, the downsizing of our habitation arrangements is an ongoing social trend fomented by a rejection of vapid consumerism.

One of the reasons for this downsizing is the runaway property market, amongst the worst in terms of affordability anywhere in the world. This has shut the best part of an entire generation out of the traditional “Kiwi Dream”. On-campus accommodation has fallen victim to the same trend, offering shelter to students at rates that are often higher than the market. This appears to be a symptom of every university’s uncertainty about what they are: timeless institutions of intergenerational knowledge or ruthless corporate landlords. You can see this play out all over campus but that is, perhaps, a rant for another time.

One thing is clear, the University does not have enough accommodation to supply all those who wish to live on campus. What is available is expensive, and ugly. The same lack of innovative design that infects broader Aotearoa society is, unsurprisingly, at play here too. Studies show that humans need green spaces. A walk in a forest, given its own slightly silly term of “forest bathing”, has been shown to have benefits for our psychology, energy levels, even our immune system. So when it comes to a redesign of on-campus accommodation, the solution was going to be less “tear it down and start over” as was broadly suggested around the Nexus office, or “bury the student housing underground like a giant ant farm” as one of our writers advocated, but tweak what we already have to make it more habitable while having a good hard think about what student housing is supposed to achieve.

We say that’s what it was going to be because we were going to make this a piece heavily grounded in reality. Till we decided to go another way. Everything we researched made us depressed and it was a pox on everyone’s house. The system is currently designed to be both childlike and have adult consequences. When what we need is a smarter halfway house. We need the escape that surrounds you with the calming effects of nature but provides a framework for you to learn how to adult.

In short, our suggestion is treehouses. Not just treehouses, but tiny houses and container houses. If it was good enough for both Robin Hood and the Ewoks, it is good enough for your average first-year econ major.  

Imagine Orchard Park was actually an orchard filled with native trees and shrubs, ornamentals and productive silviculture. Imagine you stepped outside and looked around and saw green everywhere. That your house was a sanctuary in a crazy world. 

Imagine Student Village was an actual village (we don’t have creative names for Bryant or College yet) but with treehouses set amongst a forest. Built out capacity in the form of tiny houses for the land dwellers, and semi self-contained communities amongst the trees. Build it green, keep them keen.

If the idea of communities of students living in trees and containers is really tough to imagine then you haven’t met the right first years. Throw in some ropes and a flying fox and getting them to leave will be the hard part.

If we really do have this magic wand then lets really do something with it. Make it cheaper. Not just cheaper but liveable. Whether you go with treehouses, tiny houses, or the existing halls with a few improvements, make it cheaper. How are students supposed to learn to live within their means when their first exposure to independent living is a third party provider on their own campus requiring them to live beyond their means? There are a lot of stresses on first years without this being one of them. Implement all the other things we are talking about, retail sectors, sports precincts, entertainment options. But do it with two conditions:

– That percentage of the profit we keep talking about in all our retail endeavours goes back into student accommodation to regulate the price of the halls and keep it significantly below market rates as a service, not a business.

– Make it a caveat of every bar, every venue, every retail outlet on campus that they employ students. Build a supermarket on campus and have students from the halls staff it. That’s how they do it in the UK.

Students are the lifeblood of the University, most of them are at a vulnerable inflection point in their lives. They should not be preyed upon in the name of corporate budgets.

University is a crucial time in any developing life. Ask any university and they will tell you that they offer an education far beyond what happens in the classroom. And that is absolutely true. The question then is, what else is the University teaching its students, and are those really the lessons they are trying to teach? Let’s go out of our way to be the ones who have a kaupapa centred in a humanistic approach. Let’s give students a sense of pride and self-worth, jobs that give them money in their pockets and a community that can only be built working a supermarket shift with the person in your tiny house. We can make Waikato the exception that proves the student accommodation rule. Sought after, fun, and worthy of those who have worked so hard within the confines of the system. If we can’t or won’t do any of that, then at least give them treehouses. Treehouses are cool.